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As New Cancer Treatments Emerge, an Old Question: ‘What If?’

Her name was Mary.

She was a big, tall, red-headed drink of water with a face full of freckles and a smile that lit up a room the minute she walked in. She was a television producer at CBS News who was loved and respected for her work. She was incredibly funny.

And she was only 42 years old when she died from cancer.

Betty Ann Bowser prepares for a shoot while reporting on cancer research in Sacramento, Calif.

Mary and I had been friends for years. She was godmother to my youngest boy. She had been diagnosed with melanoma when she was just a teenager. At that time, doctors removed a large chunk of muscle from one of her arms where the cancer was found and for almost 30 years she had lived cancer-free.

But suddenly and without warning it came back when she was in her early 40s. This time, it was found in her lungs, and it was terminal. For months on end, Mary struggled with treatments that she knew, in her heart, weren’t going to prolong her life or cure her.

And less than a year after she was diagnosed, she was gone.

I still get chills when I think of her godson Matthew, my youngest, standing in the cemetery on Long Island with a fist full of red balloons, which one by one he released into the air so they could go up to heaven to be with Aunt Mary.

So all through working on the NewsHour cancer series, I found all these memories of Mary coming back to me in ways that I can only describe as profound. Because if she had been diagnosed today, she might have at least had more time.

Melanoma is still one of the deadliest cancers. Each year it kills close to 9,000 Americans. And it is still considered incurable.

But like other deadly cancers, it is now treatable.

If Mary was alive today she might have been one of the lucky people to get into a clinical trial where doctors are prolonging the lives of patients who have incurable cancers not just for months but for years.

They do it by figuring out which genes are damaged, causing cancer cells to divide and make the disease grow more in the patient. Then researchers look for the right drugs to target that mutated gene and slow down or kill the spread of the cancer

Progress? Absolutely. But such treatment isn’t the kind that just anybody can go and find. A leading oncologist who is prolonging the lives of lung cancer patients with clinical trials at the University of California Davis told us that only about 20 percent of Americans have access to this kind of therapy.

Two prominent Americans who died from cancer in the past two years received this kind of treatment: Elizabeth Edwards, the former wife of politician John Edwards, and Apple computer genius Steve Jobs.

Jobs had a form of pancreatic cancer that probably could have been cured when it was diagnosed if he had followed the advice of doctors and undergone traditional chemotherapy and radiation. But initially he refused and instead tried a special diet. So nine month later, when he finally accepted traditional treatment, the cancer had spread.

According to his biographer, Walter Isaacson, when Jobs finally accepted treatment, he did so with enthusiasm. In fact, he was one of the first people anywhere in the world to have his entire genetic makeup analyzed, at a cost of over $100,000.

Even though the price has come down quite a bit since then, most people still don’t have the connections or the money to do such a thing. But the simple fact that it’s now possible to map the human gene tells us that the day is coming when genetic cancer treatment will be something us ordinary folks can find and actually use.

Working on this NewsHour cancer series also triggered memories of all the other people I have known and loved who died from the disease: My father, my maternal grandmother, three of her sisters, my fraternal aunt and four other good friends.

Three of those people died from breast cancer — something that is infinitely treatable today with conventional chemotherapy and radiation. I have wondered more than once or twice in the past few weeks if any of them might still be alive had their cancers been diagnosed today.

Of course, no one will ever know the answer to that question but just from doing the work on these cancer stories, I do know one thing. Today, at least they all would have had a fighting chance.

Watch Betty Ann’s series on the personalized future of cancer treatment and the astonishing gains in pediatric cancer research since the start of Nixon’s “War on Cancer” 40 years ago.

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